I cannot think of a better week than this to emphasize the need for volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania — and especially in the communities in which we live.
National Fire Prevention Week, celebrated this year Oct. 6-12, was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which more than 250 people died, some 100,000 were left homeless and more than 17,400 buildings burned.
The fire began Oct. 8 when, according to legend, Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicked over an oil lamp. The blaze continued well into the next day.
President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation in 1920.
Since 1922, National Fire Prevention Week has been observed on the Sunday through Saturday in which Oct. 9 falls.
This year’s event promotes the theme “Not Every Hero Wears a Cape: Plan and Practice Your Escape.”
According to the National Fire Prevention Association, the aim of the fire prevention campaign is to “educate everyone about the small but important actions they can take to keep themselves and those around them safe.”
While the campaign focuses on family members as heroes, helping their loved ones escape a burning home, there are other heroes in the community: the volunteer firefighters who don heavy and cumbersome firefighting gear, not capes, to come to the aid of neighbors and friends in all types of weather and at all hours of the day or night. These heroes, however, are in desperately short supply.
A legislative report released in November 2018 warned that Pennsylvania’s fire and rescue services faced a crisis, saying the number of volunteers continues to fall amid funding needs and training challenges.
The study said there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the state in the 1970s, a number that has dropped to about 38,000 at the time of the report.
Recommendations from the report include, in part:
• Word of mouth is the most effective way to recruit individuals;
• Legislation already in place needs to be “tweaked” to include school district and county taxes, etc.;
• Career and technical education training should be implemented in each county to have public safety programs as “trade/career” preparatory programs placed in the educational system;
• Alternative funding for organizations that provide state-approved first responder training in order to reduce the burden on volunteer systems and rural communities;
• All departments with colleges in their communities should explore live-in programs;
• All departments should explore junior/explorer programs;
• Call members who have left to determine why they have left the organization and “re-recruit” them and correct failure;
• High school training — gain consensus that training high school personnel to be first responders is a life skill as well as a potential community service and a potential job. Work with Department of Education and Department of Labor and Industry to ingrain and maintain this into all high schools (co-op program);
• College-level program — credit for students who volunteer and receive credit for research or activity performed as community service; and
• Offer a college loan forgiveness program.
On Oct. 3, the State Senate Policy Committee, chaired by Lisa Boscola, D-18th, held a hearing in Media on the future of firefighting and EMS services in the commonwealth.
“It is time that we sit down and have a serious conversation about the direction our fire companies and EMS providers are heading,” Boscola said in announcing the hearing. “We have an obligation to ensure the public is benefiting from these services and that fire companies and EMS have the resources they need to function most efficiently.
“I believe that vital reform measures will spring from this hearing, and the health and safety of our residents will be reinforced,” she said.
State Sen. Tim Kearney, D-26th, requested the hearing.
“Making sure that our communities have the resources they need to adequately prepare for and respond to emergencies is of the utmost importance,” Kearney said. “We need to make sure that emergency service providers such as ambulance services and fire departments are adequately equipped and prepared to serve their communities into the future.”
If they are not coming to aid those in need, our communities’ volunteer firefighters are taking time away from their loved ones to sponsor dinners, barbecues, basket socials and other fundraisers to raise the funds needed to continue their lifesaving efforts.
Be assured, without these volunteers — these heroes — paid firefighters will be needed in the rural communities in which we live, and taxes will increase accordingly.